Napau ‘Pedro’ Stephen was Mayor of Torres Shire from 1994 to 2016 and the first Indigenous person elected to the position. Corey Bousen chatted with Pedro about his life, leadership, local government and family.
Breaking down the walls
As a young child in the early 1960s, Pedro Stephen knew something wasn’t right about going to the segregated Waiben State School for ‘coloured’ children on Thursday Island.
“I understood that on Thursday Island, apartheid was real. When my mother was admitted to hospital in 1955 to give birth to me, there was a ‘coloured’ ward,” Pedro remembers.
“During my life’s journey, I witnessed that the things we read about in other countries (like apartheid in South Africa) were real on Thursday Island.”
Pedro’s father and mother (Joseph and Lency Stephen) had moved the family from Ugar (Stephens Island) to Thursday Island for its better education and employment opportunities, only to find both were segregated.
But history was on Pedro’s side when, in the 1960s, the segregated school system on Thursday Island was abolished and he was able to progress and complete a Grade 10 education. (Years 11 and 12 were not available locally at the time).
Leadership ran in the Stephen family. Pedro’s father, Joseph, was the first elected chairman of Tamwoy Council and it was while working by his father’s side that Pedro discovered the ‘fire’ to change the status quo.
“When I finished school and got involved assisting my father with his work at Tamwoy, I tried to understand why
there was an area for Indigenous people (Aboriginal reserve) and another area for non-Indigenous people. I can recall from that day that I made a personal commitment to break down the walls of segregation,” Pedro recalls.
“That fire became more real to me when I left the Torres Strait in the 1970s to join the Royal Australian Navy. Returning home in the early 1980s, my personal aspiration was to become involved and to be an advocate for the community.”
As a man of faith, Pedro could also see that religion was one of the main instruments historically used to implement segregation and other measures of control in the Torres Strait. To take back the initiative, Pedro was ordained as a pastor in the Australian Full Gospel Church in 1989.
He was subsequently elected a councillor on the Torres Shire Council in 1991 and at the next election, went one step further and was elected mayor.
“The motivation and leadership skills acquired in my past employment and my role in the church enabled and guided me
to step up from being a councillor in 1991 to nominating for mayor in 1994.”
Pedro served in the role for more than two decades.
He was recognised in the 2016 Australia Day Honours List ‘for significant service to local government in the Torres Shire and to the community’ and appointed a Member (AM) of the Order of Australia.
Pedro was defeated by Vonda Malone in the April 2016 Queensland local government election but on July 30, was elected to the Torres Strait Regional Authority and subsequently as its chairman.
“My aspiration is that we never go back to living in segregation or assimilation. If I identify policies or legislation that promote this then it is my responsibility to challenge and change them.”
Pedro says it was God’s will he lost his bid for a further term as the Torres Shire Council Mayor in the 2016 elections, but he is now working directly with the decision-makers and those who provide the funding, reinforcing his belief that three tiers of government create duplication.
“There is no need for a state government, just federal and regional,” he said.
But despite his many years of public service, Pedro’s battle with cancer in 2005 also highlighted to him that his roles as a husband and father are the most important.
“My battle with cancer was a reality check for me. The roles that I’ve talked about, as mayor, as a councillor and as a minister, these have to be balanced with my roles of husband and father.
“Lying in my sick bed, the people who were holding my hand, and the people I saw when I opened my eyes, were my wife and kids. Don’t give lip-service to your family.”
This article by Corey Bousen originally appeared in the April/May 2017 edition of 50 something magazine.